A thoroughly enjoyable book. It's easy to become disenchanted with Victorian literature, mostly because that culture is so far removed from our own. Jane Eyre is more refined than Pride and Prejudice (which I found only tolerable). Fortunately, Charlotte Brontë is a superior writer to Jane Austen, and Jane Eyre is a great novel in its own right.
The eponymous heroine is likable. She tends toward the melodramatic when speaking of her struggles, and at times I grew impatient with her, but that's only because of her flaws, which were also consistent with her character. Her strength of will is admirable, especially as she resists offers of marriage from well-intentioned but impertinent men. Brontë depicts Jane's sexual and social inequality with a deft hand, never emphasizing it more than necessary. It becomes a part of the fabric of the story, which is only natural, since she was writing in a period contemporary to that of Jane Eyre. Those of us reading the book from a twenty-first century perspective can find it difficult to imagine this world. Brontë has a plain style that makes Jane Eyre easy to read.
Considering the depth of Brontë's themes regarding the perseverance of women against all odds, I'm willing to forgive the heavy-handed romance that runs counter to that aforementioned deft sense of social justice. After all, that was the zeitgeist--novels were works of romance. Shifts in the usage of words like "intercourse" and "ejaculate", of course, make perfectly ordinary passages of this book hilarious for their modern connotations--if teenagers knew this, I'm sure they would find Jane Eyre and its contemporary novels more fascinating....
I heartily enjoyed the first two parts of this book, in which Jane comes of age at Lowood and arrives at Thornfield to become governess to a precocious French girl. The child version of Jane is self-possessed but not selfish (beyond what is normal for a child), and certainly not innocent. Jane's relationship with Helen Burns, and its outcome, is truly touching. Brontë very gradually accumulates a store of experiences for Jane that influence her to become a caregiver later in life.
I didn't like the last half of the novel as much, even though it may this part that cemented Jane Eyre in my mind as a worthy literary endeavour. The twist regarding Mr. Rochester's marital state was not as fulfilling as I had hoped; likewise, Jane's sudden inheritance did nothing for me--it was very much a deus ex machina. Then again, I didn't expect a tragic ending for this book, so I'm willing to accept that, to some extent, the ending is going to be a fairy tale. I must content myself with the fact that Jane as a character was consistent in her motivations and actions, never deviating merely for the sake of plot development.
The language of Jane Eyre is a rich meal, full of excellent diction and coherent style. If I were to recommend to someone their first Victorian novel, it would be Jane Eyre, mostly for that reason. The clear style and clever main character make the book an enjoyable experience, seldom tedious like some works of Victorian fiction can be for the twenty-first century reader.
Oh, I forgot to mention: my edition comes with a pretentious 26-page introduction by the late Q.D. Leavis. And I mean pretentious. I suppose it's only natural for the publisher to select someone inclined toward the significance of Charlotte Brontë's work, but did Leavis have to be so utterly biased? The introduction was virtually devoid of serious critique, glossing over any issues and emphasizing the critical praise Brontë received, both in her lifetime and since then. Likewise, Leavis' endnotes are intolerable, gangly creatures. I like my endnotes short and sweet. Leavis, on the other hand, has written one or two per chapter, and they run at least half a page. The very last endnote, which occurs several chapters before the end of the book, completely spoiled the ending for me. Do read Jane Eyre, but get your hands on another edition if you can.
N.B.: I re-read Jane Eyre in 2012 and wrote a separate review here.